Travelers going west in the 1850's were a serious people, acutely conscious of the importance of an extra ration, or of the tragedy that an ailing horse or a broken wheel could bring. Yet the life of the emigrant was not barren; he took along a sense of humor and a hoard of songs and tales.
On the California trail, a ballad or a sad tale was better than a rocking chair or a rosewood chest. You could sing the ballad around the campfire of an evening or tell the tale to each new person you met -- adding a bit yourself if you had a mind to.
It was along the Missouri River, the hub of westward activity, where travelers would surely have heard the strange ballad of "The River Witch." Intrigued, they listened and wondered about her. Who was she?
Summary: In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, the steamboats move up and down the navigable but treacherous Missouri River, the steamboat trade dominated by the powerful Knapp family. Along its banks a diverse population of both abolitionists and slave-owners. tries to live in peace with each other and with the constant influx of travelers east and west, but it is beginning to get very difficult, and tensions are rising. Cordelia Riley, daughter of a steamboat owner, and a Knapp on her mother's side, grows up loving the river, even stowing away at one point on her father's boat. There she meets two people who will play an especially important role in her story: Red Maude, the prostitute, who she discovers in her father's room, and Josiah Callahan, the handsome young adventurer who saves her when she gets lost. And as the story unfolds, with her hatred of Red Maude and her love of Josiah Callahan, we come to learn why the River Witch ballad is sung about her.
The basic kind of story is one that I tend not to like -- the beautiful young woman who irresistibly attracts two handsome young men (Josiah and the pilot Pierre de Vries) and marries one while loving the other, in this case for a reason so unreasonable that it isn't clear it should be considered a reason at all. There's nothing wrong with this plot on its own, but there are so many ways it can be done badly that one usually sees it done badly. And, indeed, Cordelia is mostly insufferable. To be sure, she is very young, but it is difficult to sympathize with the self-centered. Yet there is a sort of realism to it. Cordelia hardly knows Josiah, but she loves the idea of Josiah, and because of that she cannot see the good things she has for what they are. At one point Pierre gets very angry at her when she says she does not deserve him; it's certainly true that she doesn't deserve him, but the statement in some sense simply expresses the problem, that she has already sabotaged the relationship, limiting it by nothing other than her ideas of it. And, indeed, this is a steady theme with her: she interacts with her own ideas, and not the real world, until it is almost too late.
In addition to the romance, there is plenty of color from the steamboat industry, which is somewhat interesting, and about the hardships of the day. There is also a strong focus on the relation between blacks and whites, as perhaps there could hardly avoid being in a story set in this region in this period. Stories written in the 1950s on race relations are always very hit-and-miss. There are some awkward aspects to the story here, but there are some things done well. Button, the free black roustabout, is far and away the most vivid character in the book; and Button's somewhat sardonic comment that while he is forced to see things as they are, "white folks butts they head on the wall," summarizes pretty well why he often seems to be the only sensible person in the vicinity. And Jean Austin's role in the book is interesting in its own right, as well.
There is a great deal that's interesting in the story, and it is told very well, but one of the clear difficulties is that while the tale is filled with interesting characters, the one person we know most about is the person whose primary interest is that she meets interesting characters. To be sure, there are threads of the tapestry in which she rises above this, as in the basic story of how she became the River Witch; but the romance has a tendency to put itself forward, and her actions in that are almost entirely irrational. Characterization is not the focus of the work, though; this is a plot-driven story, an etiology of a haunting legend, and as such it manages to pull together a number of good elements in a way that is certainly readable. And even with the characterization, most of the characters are quite interesting for the short bits in which we see them; we get lots of fragments of interesting stories -- it is too bad that they remain fragments.
Reverend Bird turned his deep-set eyes on her. "I read of the tragedy of The Blue Teal and I said a prayer for your parents. I presume, my child, that you are saved?"
Cordelia looked down at her plate. "I took the Catholic faith when I married Pierre. He is a devout Catholic."
"Most unfortunate." Reverend Bird shook his head. "Catholics mean well, but they take the easy way out."
There was an awkward silence. Finally Cordelia asked, "How are you doing with your preaching, Reverend Bird?"
"Not too well," he said. "Iniquity abounds along the Missouri River."
Recommendation: As light reading, it's worth your time if you happen to come across it.